TBILISI (Reuters) – A court in Georgia on Friday found the ex-Soviet state’s former defense minister and opposition politician Irakly Okruashvili guilty of corruption and jailed him for 11 years in absentia.
The prison sentence means the charismatic and controversial Okruashvili will be banned from standing in a parliamentary election in May, in which President Mikhail Saakashvili is expected to struggle to hold onto his majority.
“Okruashvili has been sentenced to 11 years for bribery involving large amounts of money and extortion,” said Tbilisi city court spokeswoman Eka Chichua.
Georgia is at the centre of the Caucasus, which hosts a pipeline pumping oil to Europe from Asia, and is the subject of a tussle for influence between the United States and Russia.
Okruashvili, 34, fled to Europe last year after being granted bail in Georgia and is now in Paris waiting for a French court to decide on a Georgian request for his extradition.
He has repeatedly said he wants to remain active in Georgian politics even from exile and his lawyer, Eke Beselia, accused the authorities of using the courts as a political tool.
“The authorities wanted to disqualify Okruashvili from taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” Beselia said.
Police arrested Okruashvili in September, days after he accused Saakashvili of corruption and set up his own party.
His arrest triggered mass demonstrations in Tbilisi and helped unite a fractured opposition movement.
Georgian opposition leaders also accused authorities of using the courts to ban a government critic and said they would continue to oppose Saakashvili, whom they accuse of economic mismanagement and nepotism.
“Given the strength the opposition has now, I don’t think the absence of one person will be tragic,” said Tina Khidasheli, leader of the Republican party.
Tbilisi, the intellectual centre of Georgia where people have access to critical media, is an opposition stronghold, but outside the capital Saakashvili retains strong popularity.
Saakashvili won a snap presidential election in January with 53 percent of the vote — double his nearest rival — in a contest Western monitors described as an accurate if flawed expression of the Georgian people’s will.
The opposition said Saakashvili fixed the vote and have demonstrated for a recount.
Analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said Okruashvili’s absence will be a bigger loss for voters who desire a strong leader than for other opposition parties.
“For the rest of the opposition Okruashvili is a competitor, and nobody from the opposition parties wanted him in parliamentary elections,” he said.
Georgia’s opposition coalition fragmented after the presidential election. Analysts have said what opposition voters wanted was a genuine leader to rally behind.
Okruashvili stirred controversy with his strongly confrontational views against Russia, which backs two rebel Georgian regions.